By Alexandra Toms
“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion” (Psalm 137:1, NIV).
This year, 2019, marks the 400-year anniversary of the first enslaved African persons being brought to North America. In 1619, a ship carrying the first group of enslaved people from Africa arrived on the shores of what is now known as Virginia. According to records, there were “20 and odd Africans” on board the ship who, upon arrival, were forced into slavery or indentured servitude.
The National Council of Churches (NCC), an ecumenical partner for the Church of the Brethren’s Office of Peacebuilding and Policy, works on issues surrounding racism and mass incarceration. The NCC held a special service in honor of the 400-year anniversary. Director Nathan Hosler helped to plan and participated in the commemoration service titled “A Day of Remembrance and Lament,” during which a time of remembrance was held for the “20 and odd” enslaved persons from Africa–“20 and odd” children of God. Twenty-one flowers of remembrance were laid at the marker commemorating each of the first enslaved persons. As each flower was laid in remembrance, the affirmation “A Child of God” was recited, to which people responded with “Ashe,” a traditional African saying interpreted, “So it is.”
As the service came to a close, those in attendance moved around a tree standing for hope and celebration, “a reminder of God’s promises in creation, of the deliverance of the enslaved, in Christian faith the redemption of Jesus, and the revealed vision of the healing of the nations.” The service included celebration of the courage and persistence of those who have stood against oppressive regimes for the freedom of fellow children of God, with hope for a future where God’s healing will be known by all people and all nations.
Often slavery is considered something of the past, and no longer who we are as a country. However, slavery has been a part of the United States longer than it has not. The official year of remembrance is 1619, however people from Africa have been captured and brought to the Americas since 1501. The NCC has commemorated and remembered 1619 as a way of marking the start of slavery in the United States. Slavery continued for 246 years, ending with the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. The abolishment of slavery did not mean full freedom. For another 103 years, Jim Crow laws denied African-Americans and people of color full freedom and citizenship.
While slavery and segregation may be considered a “thing of the past,” these practices are deeply embedded in the country’s history and still affecting people of color. This anniversary is an opportunity to remember and lament each of the millions of human beings–made in the image of God–who have been enslaved, tortured, and killed in the name of slavery, segregation, and white supremacy. We must remember and lament that many American families benefited from these dehumanizing practices, whether through action or inaction. For this, we repent.
— Alexandra Toms is a legislative associate at the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy in Washington, D.C.